Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Why Can't the Church Be More Like the NFL?

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” 
When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
John 11:38-39, 43-44

When Ryan O’Callaghan was eleven years old he was absolutely certain of two things. He knew that he was gay and he knew that he could never tell anyone that truth about himself.

As a youngster growing up in Redlands, California, Ryan O’Callaghan heard older youth and adults speak of homosexuality in derogatory terms. He was pained by the slurs and the off color jokes. And it reinforced his conviction that he could never come out to anyone other than himself.

In high school he discovered football. He was good at it and it was the perfect way to hide his sexuality. No one could possibly think that a big football player was gay.

He added two more certainties. First, he would devote himself to football. It would be his life. And second, when his football career was over he would kill himself. 

He got a full scholarship to play football at the University of California and he excelled. He  won the Morris trophy as the best offensive lineman in the Pac-12. It meant a lot because it was not voted on by fans or coaches, but by the guys who had played defense against him.

He was drafted by the Patriots in the fifth round. It was great to be drafted, but he knew that as a fifth round draft choice he was not expected to make the team. The odds were against him. But he loved the Patriots’ single minded approach. Everything was about winning. There could be no distractions. Everyone had a job to do and it was all about doing your job.

He made the team.

But after some initial success a series of nagging injuries kept him out of action and eventually the Patriots released him.

Then Scott Pioli signed him to play for the Kansas City Chiefs. Pioli had worked for the Patriots before becoming the general manager of the Chiefs and he was familiar with O’Callaghan’s ability and work ethic.

After a very promising start, the old injuries resurfaced and it looked like O’Callaghan’s life was moving toward his final chapter. 

He became addicted to pain pills. They were supposed to mitigate the pain of his physical injuries and they also helped dull the deeper pain of hiding his true self from the world. 

He bought land outside of Kansas City and built a cabin where he planned to end his life. He had several guns in the cabin. All he needed to do was to pull the trigger.

At the same time, he was rehabbing a shoulder injury at the Chief’s complex with David Price, a physical trainer. It was one last attempt to resume his career. Price saw that O’Callaghan’s behavior was becoming increasingly erratic, which he believed was evidence of a drug problem. He convinced Ryan to see a counselor, Susan Wilson, who had worked with other athletes who had drug problems.

Eventually she realized that he was dealing with more than the drug issues. She helped him to come out to her about his sexuality. But he was still convinced that no one else in his life would be able to accept him and he still saw death as the only escape.

She persuaded him to test his assumption by telling someone who cared about him and seeing what the reaction would be. After giving it some thought, he decided that he would tell Scott Pioli, whom he considered to be a good friend.

He called Pioli and asked if they could meet to discuss a serious issue. In an excellent article in OutSports.com, Cyd Ziegler describes the conversation this way:
"He had built this up like he was coming in to tell me that maybe he had done something truly terrible," Pioli remembered.
O’Callaghan trudged into Pioli’s office the next day. After a hug and some small talk, O’Callaghan turned serious. He told Pioli he had been visiting with Wilson and had gotten "clean." It was good news to Pioli.
"I’ve got something else I’ve got to tell you," O’Callaghan said. At this point he was fighting back tears. Pioli’s mind raced, wondering if his player had harmed or killed someone.
 "I’m gay," O’Callaghan said.
 His private announcement was met with immediate support from the GM. Then:
"So what’s the problem you wanted to talk me about?" Pioli asked.
O’Callaghan looked at him, bewildered, 27 years of fear, anxiety and self-loathing meeting Pioli’s stare.
"Scott," O’Callaghan said, "I’m… gay."
Pioli acknowledged that and asked again if O’Callaghan had done something wrong.
"People like me are supposed to react a certain way, I guess," Pioli told Outsports. "I wasn’t minimizing what he was telling me, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. He built this up and built this up to the point where he said he was nearly suicidal. What Ryan didn’t know is how many gay people I’ve had in my life."
And in that moment Scott Pioli called Ryan O’Callaghan from death into life.

In John’s Gospel the author tells the story of Jesus and Lazarus as a parable. The meaning is deeper than any literal reading could reveal. Christ is the one who calls us from death into life, and that is precisely the work of the church. And it is the work to which we are called as Christians and as human beings.

The title of the blog is intentionally hyperbolic. The NFL is hardly the guardian of virtue and the reactions of church folks are often at least as open and accepting as Scott Pioloi was with Ryan O’Callaghan.

But the story reminds us how high the stakes are.

When the United Methodist Church, or any other church, tells its young people that because they are gay their lives will be “incompatible with Christian teaching,” that it is sinful for them to commit themselves to a relationship in the same way that heterosexuals take for granted, then we are part of that great sea of condemnation that makes gay kids feel like their lives are not worth living.

Ryan O’Callaghan has gone public with his personal journey because he wants to stop kids from killing themselves.

Jesus said, “Unbind him. Let him go.”

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

May the Peace of the Sabbath Be with You

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.                                                                       Genesis 2:1-3

On the Sabbath day, Jesus went to the Synagogue, 
as he always did.                                                                Luke 4:16

This past Sunday during the Children’s Moment I talked with the kids about Sabbath and summer. When I asked if anyone knew why there was a Sabbath, Evan was quick to answer, “Because in Genesis God rested on the seventh day.”

Exactly right!
Someone once asked a rabbi, “Why did God give us this mighty poem of Creation? The Rabbi answered, “To teach us to rest on the Sabbath.” 

Jesus kept the Sabbath, as did his disciples. 

Even on that darkest of days, on the day after the crucifixion, they kept the Sabbath. Keeping Sabbath is at the center of our spiritual practice.

One of the most memorable experiences of my life was observing Sabbath in Jerusalem. With some rabbi friends I went to three different synagogues (Friday evening, Saturday morning, and Saturday evening). The Saturday evening service, at the close of Shabbat, was at a tiny ultra-orthodox Synagogue which seemed to have been transported, unchanged, from eighteenth century Eastern Europe.  We had Shabbat dinner at the elegant King David Hotel. And throughout the day there was fellowship and conversation.

The most significant part of the experience was the sense of peace I felt. That feeling is brought back in the traditional Sabbath greeting, "Shabbat Shalom." It means, "Sabbath peace." It is a short way of saying, "the peace of the Sabbath be with you." 

The refreshing gift of Shabbat is not that work is forbidden, but that rest is permitted. For one day, we are reminded that life does not depend on us; that we can trust God; that we do not have to be busy every moment; that God provides.

At its best, summer in New England is a kind of Shabbat. My prayer for you this summer is that you will have a sense of Shabbat. Resist the temptation to turn leisure into work. Just say "no" to the cultural pressure to fill the summer with so many fun activities that it feels like a part time job.

In the summer, at the United Methodist Church in East Greenwich we make a special effort to create a time of refreshment and renewal in our worship services. We will have childcare for infants and toddlers, and our “one room Sunday School” for older children. And summer, with its more informal atmosphere, is a wonderful time for children to attend worship with their parents and learn what it’s like to experience the whole service.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Doctrine Is Not Our Saving Grace

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30

William Willimon, the most widely published United Methodist Bishop, retired from his episcopal responsibilities and returned to teaching at Duke Divinity School in 2012. The Christian Century marked his retirement with a wide ranging interview covering a wide spectrum of topics relating to the work of a bishop and the ministry of the United Methodist Church.

He was asked whether in his role as Bishop he would have removed a pastor who had “recanted doctrinal vows he or she had solemnly pledged to honor.” “Absolutely,” said Willimon, “tell me you have misgivings about the Trinity or trouble believing in the bodily resurrection and I’ll help you find less intellectually challenging work—like being a Republican candidate for president.”

Throughout his career, Willimon has been known more for his wit than his wisdom, and if one assumes that he was trying to be funny about the Republican candidates, then maybe he was just kidding in his doctrinal illustration.

If he wasn’t kidding, then it’s troubling to think that having “misgivings about the Trinity or trouble believing in the bodily resurrection” would be grounds for dismissing a pastor. (Didn’t he read Paul Tillich’s “Dynamics of Faith,” or does he think the greatest theologian of the twentieth century was wrong about doubt being a necessary part of faith?)

But setting Tillich aside, Methodists have never been greatly concerned about doctrine. We are united in a general affirmation that Jesus is the Christ, but widely divided about precisely what that means.

And more seriously, if “misgivings” can be grounds for dismissal, then it will be difficult to have really honest conversation with one’s bishop, who is supposed to be a “pastor to the pastors.”

But there’s more.

This coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday. I’m guessing that the average United Methodist lay person doesn’t know that and doesn’t care. The Trinity has a strong tradition as church doctrine, but it is connected to the biblical witness of the early church by the thinnest threads of biblical evidence.

The Trinity does represent an important truth: we experience God in different ways. The traditional formulation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, reminds us that we experience God as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.

And if we don’t understand the Trinity, how will we ever make sense of Don McLean’s “American Pie” reference to “the three men I admire most”?

But to the average person, the doctrine of the Trinity often sounds like a belief in three gods, rather than three experiences of the One.

Willimon’s second example of denying a doctrine is described as “having trouble believing in the bodily resurrection.” Nothing is more central to Christian faith than the resurrection of Jesus. The Gospels are written by people who are convinced that they have met the risen Christ. That encounter vindicates everything that Jesus taught. They are clear that they are not just talking about a memory, and they have not encountered a ghost. His presence is real.

Expressing that reality in a way that it can be understood is not easy.

Clearly, we are not talking about a resuscitated corpse, but the Gospel descriptions never confront the issue head on. We see an empty tomb and we hear a voice. He approaches two of them on the road to Emmaus, and they talk for hours before they recognize him in the breaking of bread. When Paul describes his encounter on the road to Damascus, he claims that the appearance to him is just the same as previous appearances to other disciples. There are no words to describe the experience which has turned their world upside down.

More than half a century ago, Paul Tillich published a sermon called, “The Yoke of Religion,” using the text from Matthew cited above. He argued that Jesus had come to free us from that “yoke.” And he described the predicament of modern “man” this way:

“The religious law demands that he accept ideas and dogmas, that he believe in doctrines and traditions, the acceptance of which is the condition of his salvation from anxiety, despair and death. So he tries to accept them, although they may have become strange or doubtful to him. He labors and toils under the religious demand to believe things he cannot believe.”

In Tillich’s time, there were many church goers who labored and toiled under the religious demand to believe things they could not believe. In our time some of those people are searching desperately for a way to reconcile their faith with ancient doctrines, while many others simply leave the church. For such people, a pastor with “misgivings” about those doctrines may be exactly what they need.

When Jesus called his disciples, he did not demand that they believe something, only that they follow him. That is still our invitation.

*This is revised from a post first published on June 1, 2012.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.